This Portrait Photographer Speaks

(this is an old feature article I am sharing from the archive)


Veter Crutches
Veter Crutches

Photography is perhaps the most general area of discussion on the planet because it’s subjectivity spans from deliberate design to accidental capture. There are many ways to organize the points of photography, but perhaps the least frustrating is to first define the end user objective. This author’s vernacular will be expressed from somewhere in the middle of technical to layman’s terms and is intended as a spontaneous article based on personal experience. I write an article about every day, without much ad-hoc research, other than past experience.

Context, Content and Intent


If you’re on vacation and have a camera with you, taking good pictures is probably pretty easy.  Vacationing and travel are some of the best situations for taking photos. But when you aren’t on vacation, and you just want to achieve great photos that have merit and value, you have to invest energy, or be in the midst of changing energy. I suppose you could take pictures of strangers passing by outside your window at the very least, although that would be really creepy.  Then again, inviting strangers into your house to be photographed is creepy as well. Intending to create images without first having the option of content and context is a really vague and incomplete status. We are much better off putting ourselves where the action is and negotiating the elements for the shot you want. It’s very hard to create valuable content as a photographer, but when we want to shoot, and need interesting material, say for a magazine editorial, then we are faced with the question of “what to shoot”. That question is huge, as we are stepping out from there into the option of the entire visible spectrum of our planet, the heavenly bodies, and everything in between. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we are given guidelines and art direction. This may or may not dictate a proposed message or maybe just the visual content, regardless of a message. There are advertisements that don’t have a message at all, other than the brand name being displayed, and perhaps an attention grabbing layer of interest with a vaguely qualifying action of someone smoking, or laughing, or smiling, or having a human experience that depicts well being or privileged status.  The point is that there are a lot of questions that can be asked before a shoot begins.

Location and Posturing


If you have a choice on location, there are some things to consider. We don’t always have a choice, unfortunately, and are at the mercy of where the story happens to be taking place. If the story is in a white room with a drop ceiling then that’s what you have to work with. It pays off to have a camera that can handle low light. Shooting in Black and White saves you from the hassle of white balance and gives greater detail to the faces of people in bad lighting.

If you have the option of posing the subjects, be they a bowl of fruit or a single person posing for a portrait, there are some key points to consider. Do you want the subject to be lighter, or darker than the rest of the elements in the image? Do you want the subject to be the only in-focus thing in the image or do you want another key element to also be in sharp focus, next to the subject? Make sure they are both in focus if so. “in or out” is a rule of thumb. Each element in an image should clearly have its place as being “in or out” of a paradigm within the image: in focus or out of focus; high key or low key lighting; included in the crop or excluded. I guess one can think in basic triangulations of distance from the lens and degrees of separation in the scene trigonometricaly and then think of the color and contrast on the other hand, and also the element of focus and depth. These are all basic powerful points that make up the value of an image.


girl in boots and cowbow hat in mud

Many images include a backdrop as an unavoidable element. To have space around the subject is to have a backdrop. There are scenes which have no subject and these are different because the scene is the subject. But when shooting a subject against a backdrop of any kind, here are some tips.

When shooting against a wall, the subject, if a person, for example, will cast one or more shadows on the wall that you should be aware of as affecting the overall feel of the image. One bold shadow with strong shape and a little fill light can be great, but a black shadow extending off one side of the subject can be very undesirable as it can be confusing to the eye as to what it is. A black blob in a picture isn’t usually a good thing when trying to be subtle or graceful in your image expression. You have a limited space to work with in the image, and to make your image really good instead of mediocre, you will want to consider improving whatever you can in the time and with the resources you have available to you. I would say fill light is very important here, since the subject inevitably will make a shadow somewhere near by. I like to get the subject away from the backdrop and use one light usually, and just place everything perfectly so that the shadows fall out of the field of view.

Backdrops are a lot of fun, can be a fair amount of work to construct or exploit, but a backdrop is not the subject and can not overpower the subject. If the subject is subtle, the backdrop should be even more subtle, perhaps. Use your own judgement. The point is to know that an image is made of many elements and each adds up.


Julie Anna Cole

Exposure of the subject is the most important thing. You might not have ideal conditions, but to technically capture the subject’s visible light as intended is foremost. Without this, little else matters. One that is established, you can work with reciprocity or light ratios. You can use your eye for the most part, and the questions are things like “how much brighter do i want the subject than the backdrop?” and “what quality of gradient or shadow do i want, if any, on the subject from the key light” or maybe “how do i want to make the subject pop out of the image by using rim lighting to emphasize the edges and contours of the subject”. There are many questions that can be considered, just be thoughtful.

Sometimes we have to wait for or plan on the timing of the right light, instead of chasing it, and that is yet another investment into the value of the image. On a cloudy day you might have to wait for the clouds to make just the right mix of shadow on the subject or shadow only on the backdrop. Bad lighting can just be a drag, and it has been known to keep me from shooting many times. And bringing your own lighting means carrying a lot of stuff, so you can look at it as an option… do you want to work hard for a short period of time and get a great shot, or do you want to work very little for a very long period of time and get a great shot? The nature of those two different shots will be different indeed, and which is better is a matter of application, and choice, depending on the job or work.


I always say the subject should be at proper exposure and the rest should be a little darker.  This isn’t always the case, and however you achieve your goal in this, is up to you.


Defense / Agony

How do you know what the subject of the image is to be? This can change from moment to moment in a story, or you may be stuck with a fixed subject. If you have the freedom to do so, start with the key subject and then change the subject matter up, and then return to the main subject again. I think that makes for a nice story board feel, and can open you up to many possibilities once you get used to it. What at first seems like it would be a natural spontaneous work flow, can become deliberate and controlled while stil appearing fluid and natural. This is useful when you have to make a shoot happen, and build content for a publication for example.

Clarity and Focus

This is a very difficult aspect of the execution of the work. It’s important to gravitate towards situations where the lighting and movement of the subject will allow for a sharp capture, in focus and without motion blur. This is just a rule of thumb, but is usually very true. Strobes help stop the motion but you still need clear focus at the drop of a hat.


Rachel in Factory

Images are two dimensional rectangles when they come out of the camera. They have no actual explorable depth of their own, but they can capture a perspective of depth if the image is shot in that way, and this is enough to make an image have apparent depth. Shooting several similar objects which are sequentially greater distances from the film plane of the camera will get depth in two ways: Forshortening and focal blur. The objects closer will be bigger than the objects far away, even tho they are the same type of object. The aspect of blur will imply depth because our eyes work like a lens as well, bluring and sharpening based on distance from our retina. Another depth tool is light, which has a distance dependant behavior. Things far from a light will be less visible than a similar object closer to the light. So, the aspect and nature of depth in an image has many factors and is just one more way to improve an image.


I used to shoot without a light meter, and without a battery in my camera. That was how I started out, and I was mixing strobes and natural light on jobs for clients in NYC. I don’t know anyone who had ever done that. I had time on the train ride to the client to map out the distances of my strobes, and my EV levels taking into consideration the absorption and dispersion of the light off of my umbrellas, and then I had to guess where the light would fall on the faces of the client, and this was all done with film, without a Polaroid test shot. I shot for PBS in the Macy’s parade this way in NYC as well as the Halloween parade in Manhattan which was probably my favorite. but with only natural light. My shots were not always perfect, because there were situations where I had no time to prepare! I was still inexperienced tho I had a strong understanding of exposure. You won’t have to worry about all the things I made myself to worry about. But you have a choice as to the degree you want to involve yourself into it all. I would strongly suggest learning the math of exposure. Start by looking up the “sunny 16 rule”. Just start there and you have to memorize it and practice it. I shot for several months with no film in my camera when i was starting out, using this rule, just practicing.


Sierra Missed

The thing to remember here is you can’t have both. But cameras today have great low noise high iso. I can’t afford one of those just yet tho. I’m not a pro, I’m an art photographer and I tend to be old school. But Shooting film can be great with high iso high grain. Using strobes can be great for low ISO like 100 for high detail and smooth skin, etc. This is all worked into the Sunny 16 Rule as well.

What’s better than a great image? a set of great images that tie together with a common thread. Just be mindful, when building a set of images that they don’t reveal any bad qualities in your process like random interpretations of white balance, and indecisive framing, or redundant content. Tell a story and avoid things in the image that will confuse or distract from the stated intent. Yes, you have to know all these things before you start in general, or you have to spend a good bit of time sorting through bad shots and trying to make them tie together when that wasn’t the plan at the outset.


I talked about story a bit above. The story is the timeline that takes place in the reader or viewers head. You have to have a basic grasp of how elements communicate ideas and how they follow one another to state several points that tie together into a sequence that hopefully compliment one another. This is another subjec on it’s own.

Layers of Interest

Another great way to analyze an image is learning to see each image as a stack of imaginary conceptual layers. Each layer is an element on its own joining with the other layers to work harmoniously in delivering the final image. My artist friend is telling me that oil paintings work in that way, in their own way, and can have 60 or 80 layers in a great painting. He was one of the leading art dealers back in the day and a printing master in NYC. I guess that’s another world.